A tender and moving story of courage ... the quiet, steady kind of courage that is given only to the pure in heart
MABEL BROWN FARWELLMarch151944
MABEL BROWN FARWELL
HE HAD written, “Go see him, Babe. He lives in a house near the esplanade in a sort of court like. His folks are class, but don’t let that bother you. Van’s a regular guy and just remember to treat him natural.”
Babe had had the letter for a month or more, but working on the 3 to 11 shift there hadn’t been time to call on anyone. She knew that people like the Beldens didn’t have visitors in the morning, no matter how regular a guy Van was.
But today was different. Today the only thing in the world she wanted was to see Van Belden—to see him and maybe have him bring Joe a little closer. Around two-thirty she went into the city and walked to the esplanade. It was snowing; great flakes fell on her near-beaver jacket, her brown button of a hat; and a cold wind whipped across the river blowing her blond hair and wrapping the skirt of her red wool around her legs.
It sure was a tough day, she thought, and mumbled the address Joe had given her. It was hard to see the houses with the wind and snow making such a nasty business of the weather, hut at last she discovered something that looked like a court. She turned in and saw the number. This was it—a red brick house almost covered by ivy, three broad steps which led to a white door, a brass eagle knocker.
She went up the steps and found the bell, almost hidden by ivy. She pressed it and waited. She supposed she should be a little scared because she’d never been in a house like this before. But she wasn’t scared today. Maybe tomorrow or next week. But not today.
A grey-haired dame in black silk and a white apron opened the door. “Yes, miss?” she said.
“I’ve come to see Van Belden,” Babe told her. “Come in,” the dame said grudgingly. “I’ll ask. What name shall 1 give?”
“Babe Allhright. Tell him Joe’s wife.”
CHE steppt*! into the hall. The place sure had class.
There was a thick rug on the floor and a mirror over a table, a real pretty mirror with a big gold eagle at the top of it t he Beldens seemed to go for eagles and flowers, roses and tulips, on the table and a silver dish with some cards on it. The maid walked off down the hall and Babe stepped nearer to the silver dish. That’s what she should have had—a calling card. That’s what people with class had.
She saw the maid stop before a door down the hall and turn the knob and then she heard her talking to someone inside. “There’s a young girl here. She said to tell you she’s Joe’s wife. Her name is Allhright.” “How tall is she?” a man asked.
“About your height.”
“Fairly tall then,” he said. “What’s she wearing?” “Red wool skirt, brown jacket . . she’s sort of on the thin side. Light hair, sort of blown about, blue eyes.” The woman’s voice was low, but Babe heard every word. “She said her name is Babe. All right?” “Of course it s all right.”
The maid lift**! a beckoning finger, held the door open for a minute and then went off. It was a swell room Babe found herself in——books and polished wood and a fire burning and Van standing near it. His face was nice, smiling, lean, a low broad forehead, dark smooth hair. He was a gqod-looker all right.
He was holding out his hand. “Is it Mrs. Allhright?” he said.
He must have known she was there—watching him. “It’s Babe,” she said, walking across the rug to him with firm, steady steps and taking his hand. “I sure wouldn't want you to call me anything else, seeing as how you and Joe were buddies.”
His laugh made her feel good right away. “Won’t
you sit down?” He motioned toward a kind of couch just big enough for two that was beside the fireplace.
It was then that Babe saw the dog, a big one with a harness. She’d seen pictures of dogs like that in magazines. He sure was lucky to have one of them. She sat on the couch and was glad of the warmth from the fire.
“Don’t I remember Joe’s telling me that you come from his home town?” Van asked. “From Saskatchewan?”
Babe watched as he sat in the chair across from her. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s right. But I’m working around here now. I’m in a wire and cable factory. I’m on the 3 to 11 shift or I would’ve come before. I heard from Joe more’n a month ago telling me to come see you. Joe sure thought . . . thinks . . . a lot of you. He hoped they’re treating you all right.”
Van Belden laughed. “They’re treating me fine.”
“Joe was kinda afraid they’d try to make a sissy of you, I guess, coming back from the war blind. Joe’s written me lots about you and he knows you’re no sissy.” She kept her eyes on Van’s face.
“It was good of Joe to think of me and of you to come,” he said. “When you write to him, tell him I’m fine.”
“Okay.” Babe shut her eyes for a moment and held tight to the purse in her lap. “I kinda wish you’d tell me a little about Joe. It’s a long*time since I’ve seen him. What’s the last thing you can remember about
SHE saw the man lean toward her a little, as if he were eager to remember. “The last time he came to see me I was in a hospital in England, waiting to be shipped home. He had an 18-hour pass and he . . Van stopped a minute to laugh at a memory. “The last thing I can remember is Joe’s giving me a terrific wallop and telling me to keep my chin in.”
“Joe was always too free with his punches,” Babe said. He’d been a boxer once. She could see him now, his sandy hair, his big-shouldered, solid, well-trained body, and his ham of a hand delivering what he thought was a playful pass, but with weight behind it because Joe didn't know any different. Maybe he was too free with his punches, but if he could be here now in this room with her or if she knew he’d be waiting for her when she got home, he could knock her cold and it’d be all right. It’d be swell .
“It’s odd vour coming today,” Van was saying, “because I’ve been thinking a lot about Joe lately. I’ve been reading what a shambles they’ve macte of the submarine base at St. Nazaire, the factories in western Europe and I know Joe’s been on some of those parties ...”
“Yeah,” Babe said.
There was silence in the room for a minute and then she found the courage to ask him something she wanted very much to know. “There’s only one thing I’ve ever worried about when I’ve thought of Joe. He’s awful big and brave on the outside. Joe and I went around together a lot before we were married and I know Joè pretty well. I’ve seen him go into boxing matches with guvs lots better’n he was, but he always knew I was there rooting for him. Joe was an awful good bluffer about his real feelings. What I worry about is Joe going into something much worse’n a boxing match, maybe thinking death was at the other end, and being alone and being scared. That’s what worries me . . . was Joe ever afraid?” It was a long speech for Babe. It was telling something she’d never told anyone about Joe before and she hoped Van Belden would know she wasn’t running Joe down. That she had to know for herself, so she could be at peace about Joe.
“Of course he was afraid,” Van told her, “but he wasn’t alone. We were all together; we were all afraid, while we were waiting, after we’d been briefed. That’s when we wisecracked the hardest. But once we got
A tender and moving story of courage ... the quiet, steady kind of courage that is given only to the pure in heart
going there was no more wisecracking and no more fear. That’s the way it was with Joe, too.”
“Thanks,” Babe said “Thanks a lot.” She ran her hand tenderly over the rough cloth of her purse. It was sure good to hear that Joe wasn’t alone, that he wasn’t afraid.
“Let me tell you something funny about Joe,” Van started to say when he was interrupted by the slamming of the front door and someone’s calling, “Hi, darling, I’m home.”
Babe saw his face light up. It probably was his mother. “Well,” she said, “I guess I’ve got to be going along.” She didn’t want to meet any of his family. She hadn’t minded Van, but the others would be different.
“Don’t go,” he told her. “It’s Lucia. I want you to meet her. She knows who Joe is. Don’t go.”
Babe turned and saw the girl in the doorway, little and dark, with her cheeks red from the wind. “Hello,” she said. “I didn’t know Van had a guest.”
“It’s Mrs. Allbright, Joe’s wife,” Van told her. “You remember Joe . . . he was my rear gunner, darling.” “Of course,” the girl said. She came into the room and held out her hand to Babe. “How nice!”
When she came close Babe saw the swanky way she had her hair brushed up with just one wave across it, the cream skin, the softness of the material in her black tailored suit. “I was just saying,” Babe told her, “that I’ve got to be leaving. It’s just that Joe asked me to come and I . . . ”
“Of course you’re not going,” the girl said, “just because I came home. You’re going to stay for tea. Has Van showed you all the things he’s done?” She bent down and kissed Van then in a beautiful way, Babe thought, just as if she didn’t care who saw her kiss him. It wasn’t somehow the way a sister would do it. Then Babe darted a quick glance at the hand which rested on the back of Van’s chair. Sure, she should have guessed! This was Van’s wife. There
was a wedding ring on her hand to prove it. A lump caught in Babe’s throat for no reason she could explain. They sure loved each other. Anybody could tell that just to look at ’em.
“We’ll have tea,” the girl said, crossing to the other side of the room and pressing a bell in the panel beside the door just the way they do in the movies, “but while we’re waiting I’ll play some of Van’s music for you. Did you know he’s written some music since he came home?”
“Nonsense,” Van protested. “You’ll do nothing of the kind.” But Babe could see that he was pleased.
“I suppose you wonder,” Lucia said, coming back to them, “how a blind person can write music, but Van and I’ve worked out a wonderful system. You see lie’s studying Braille.” She picked up an oblong piece of thin cardboard from the table beside the sofa. “Did you ever see what Braille looks like?” she asked, handing the card to Babe.
Babe took it from her. She saw the colorless impressions that looked as if someone had pushed the head of a pin down hard here and there on its surface. “It sure doesn’t look like anything, does it?”
The girl laughed. “But it does.” She took the card over to her husband. “Read it to us, darling.”
Babe watched his smile, then the way the fingers of his right hand started moving across the cardboard. “This is part of a poem,” he said. “I don’t believe you’d want me to read it, Lucia.”
“Don’t be silly. It doesn’t matter what it is. I only want you to show Mrs. Allbright, so she can tell Joe ...”
“Well, all right.” Van lifted his face to where he knew Lucia was standing beside him and then bent his head again and started to feel his way deftly along the card.
Babe felt self-conscious at first. She never read poetry herself and she had never heard anyone read iL aloud. That is, not since school. At first she was not
conscious of the words. All she was aware of was the voice. Van had a beautiful voice, there was no denying that. Gradually she became aware of the words. Lovely words they were and somehow she could hear Joe in them—somewhere . . .
“ ‘Lest heaven be throned with greybeards hoary,’ ” he read.
“ ‘God, who made boys for His delight,
Stoops in a day of grief and glory And calls them in, in from the night.
When they come trooping from the war,
Our skies have many a young new star.’ ”
SEE!” Lucia said and then went on talking, but Babe didn’t hear what she was saying. The words Van had just read were searing themselves across her brain and there wasn’t room there for anything else. “In a day of grief and glory.” She saw Joe, a helmet strapped tightly under his chin, his blue eyes steady, his big hands on his gun, every muscle of his body under the thickly padded suit ready. Maybe it was night. Maybe there were stars all around him, but he wasn’t thinking of the stars and he wasn’t afraid. Van had told her that.
The same dame brought in the tea. She stood beside Lucia and handed around thin cups. “No sugar or
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anything,” Babe said, because she didn’t want to make a mess of the pretty tray, with the slices of lemon all laid out in a row or the lumps of sugar with little flowers on them.
She said “Yes” and “No” when they asked her questions. Later she listened when Lucia played for them, but she kept that picture of Joe in her mind— in the blue of daylight or under the stars of night, unafraid in a day of glory . . “calling them in, in from the night ...”
“Well,” she said at last, “I sure have got to be going. It must be late.”
“I’ll call a taxi for you,” Lucia said. “It’s dark and it’s snowing.”
“I’ll be all right,” Babe told her. “I don’t want a taxi.” It sure was nice here. She didn’t really want to go. They sure were fine people . . . she wished she knew how to tell them so!
“You’ll come again,” Van was saying, “won’t you?”
“Well, thanks. You’ve sure been fine to me.” She almost thought for a minute then that she was going to tell them about Joe, but she looked at the two of them standing so close together with the firelight warm behind them and knew she wouldn’t.
“When you write to Joe,” Van said, “tell him about Lucia, too, won’t you?” “You bet!” Babe agreed.
“And about Van’s music!”
Lucia held her hand all the way to the door. “It’s been wonderful for Van to have you,” she said. “You’ve been good for him.”
“Good-by,” Babe said.
“You’re sure you’11 be all right?” Lucia asked, opening the door. “Why, it’s stopped snowing!”
“I’ll he fine,” Babe told her. “Goodby.”
“Good-by,” Lucia said. “Come back again.”
BABE heard the door close softly behind her. She walked through the court and out to the esplanade. She stopped for a minute when she got there and looked with unseeing eyes out across the river. It was hard to believe with the world so still and white all about her that there was a telegram in her purse. “. . '. regrets to inform you that Sergeant Joseph Allbright ...” A telegram that had come only today, this morning.
She couldn’t write Joe about Van Belden. But it was the last thing he’d asked her to do and she’d done it, and Van had told her what she’d wanted to know. She lifted her eyes to the sky then and saw the stars. In a day of grief and glory Joe hadn’t been afraid when he was called in, in from the war. + + +
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